In a letter to Joseph Milligan on April 6, 1816, Thomas Jefferson explicitly suggested that if individuals became so rich that their wealth could influence or challenge government, then their wealth should be decreased upon their death. He wrote, "If the overgrown wealth of an individual be deemed dangerous to the State, the best corrective is the law of equal inheritance to all in equal degree..."
In this, he was making the same argument that the Framers of Pennsylvania tried to make when writing their constitution in 1776. As Kevin Phillips notes in his masterpiece book "Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich," a Sixteenth Article to the Pennsylvania Bill of Rights (that was only "narrowly defeated") declared: "an enormous proportion of property vested in a few individuals is dangerous to the rights, and destructive of the common happiness of mankind, and, therefore, every free state hath a right by its laws to discourage the possession of such property."..
In "Wealth and Democracy," Kevin Phillips notes that: "George Washington, one of the richest Americans, was no more than a wealthy squire in British terms." Phillips says that it wasn't until the 1790' s - a generation after the War of Independence - that the first American accumulated a fortune that would be worth one million of today's dollars. The Founders and Framers were, at best, what today would be called the upper-middle-class in terms of lifestyle, assets, and disposable income.
Even Charles and Mary Beard granted that wealth and land-ownership were different things. Land, after all, didn't have the scarcity it does today, and thus didn't have the same value. Just about any free man could find land to settle, either where Native Americans had been decimated by disease or displaced by war...
When George Washington wrote his will and freed his slaves on his deathbed, he didn't have enough assets to buy the slaves his wife had inherited and free them as well. Like Jefferson, who died in bankruptcy, Washington was "rich" in land but poor in cash...
Their writings show that they truly believed they were doing sacred work, something greater than themselves, their personal interests, or even the narrow interests of their wealthy constituents back in their home states... And thus the willingness to set aside economic interest to produce a document - admittedly imperfect - that would establish an enduring beacon of liberty for the world.
03 October 2011
The Founding Fathers and great wealth
Excerpts from an essay at Common Dreams: